The legislative debate over whether Rhode Island needs stiffer penalties to deter protests on the highway began Wednesday night at the Statehouse. The discussion centered on whether new measures will promote public safety or whether they would mark an intensification of what opponents called an overly punitive criminal justice system.
The harsher of two bills, sponsored by Representative Ray Hull (D-Providence), a Providence police officer, would criminalize unlawful interference with traffic on federal and state highways, and make violators subject to minimum mandatory prison sentences of at least 60 days. Opponents like Malchus Mills said the legislation is an overreaction to demonstrations against the police-involved deaths of young black men.
"If we cannot protest injustice, how are we to change, how are we to effect change?" asked Mills, who put his age in his 60s and said he'd been protesting since he was in high school. "What you gonna do? You gonna make us all criminals? Because we get your attention? That’s what civil disobedience is supposed to do."
Mills was joined by an ad hoc coalition of civil libertarians and self-described rabble rousers in arguing that current laws are sufficient for responding to highway protests. They also said protests, like the one that briefly closed I-95 in Providence last November, are necessary to focus attention on important concerns.
Yet supporters of the two bills say the legislation is necessary to keep protests from interfering with public safety. They pointed to how free speech doesn’t include the right to shout “bomb” on a crowded plane.
Anthony Capezza, state director of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, said he believes in the right to protest, but draws the line when demonstrators block a highway.
“Your rights don’t give you the right to pose a life and death situation for somebody else, and that’s what you’re doing in reality," Capezza said, referring to a protest last month on Interstate 93 in Massachusetts. "We saw it happen in Boston. It could happen very well in Providence, where somebody’s in cardiac arrest in the back of a rescue and that rescue can’t get to the hospital.”
Capezza was the only representative of law enforcement, other than lawmakers, to expressly support the bills. Most of the more than 20 people turning out for the meeting did so to oppose the legislation.
The two sides disagreed on the effectiveness on highway protests. Some opponents called the demonstrations the only way to draw attention to racism and how it impacts the criminal justice system. Yet other speakers said the protests distract from the focal point being emphasized by the demonstrators.
The second bill under discussion, sponsored by Representative Dennis Canario, a retired police officer, would make a misdemeanor of obstructing a freeway.
The House Judiciary Committee held both bills for further study after listening to about two hours of testimony.